Saved: August 22nd 2012November 17th 2009
The Four Norias
In breaking news, Becka and I finally did Krak! After spending two consecutive weekends in Damascus, I finally made it to Krak des Chavaliers, or Quala’at al-Hosn, a place which I had planned to visit on about 5 separate occasions before various other things intervened.
The last two weeks have been spent in the city, as last weekend I had an oral presentation on Sunday about globalisation and the mixing of cultures, and so spent a depressing number of hours writing my 10 minute speech, as my rate of writing in Arabic is about 1 minute per hour. On the Friday night Becka and I once again went to a gig with the first Arabic Latin Band, who we had seen at Marmars a few weeks before. It was an amazing concert as it was in the Mustafa Ali Art Gallery, a sculpture gallery in the Old Town which is set in a beautiful old house with a huge open courtyard where the band played. There were tables set out for the VIPs, friends of the band and the artist, so unfortunately once again not much of a dance floor, but we were treated to an amazing display by a
group of very talented salsa dancers who turned up en mass and danced on the tiny dance floor in front of the stage with expert moves, meaning we got a free dance show to go with the music.
This weekend we decided it was about time we went on another adventure, although Thursday night was once again spent at Sam and Tamsin’s house, a huge place with eleven rooms occupied by students from all over the world, eating delicious food cooked by their lovely neighbour, and playing guitar and singing til the early hours. On Friday morning we set off for Hama, a smallish town in the West of Syria, which is famous for its huge wooden water wheels, or norias, which were once part of a system of irrigation, lifting water from the river and depositing it in a series of aqueducts. Most of the aqueducts are no longer standing, however the water wheels are still very much in evidence, and even turn in the summer, although sadly in the winter much of the water is diverted away from the river, and there is not enough flow to keep the wheels turning.
Becka and I arrived in
Krak des Chevaliers
...aka Quala'at al-Hosn
Hama at about two in the afternoon, and spent a pleasant couple of hours strolling 1km each way up and down the river to see the norias, and enjoying the sunshine, and the sunset - which began at around 4.30pm and finished at around 4.45pm! The river is beautiful, and dotted with picturesque old buildings, although most of the Old City was destroyed during the anti-Muslim Brotherhood bombings in 1982.
It got dark just as we arrived back in the town centre, and I was desperate for some coffee, so we headed to a nearby café where I had instant cappuccino and we sampled the local speciality, a rather disgusting sweet made from sweet cheese wrapped in some sort of pancake-like sausage, which reminded me of a montrosity mum once ordered in Turkey, which was aptly and descriptively named 'Chicken Breast Pudding'. We did some of our homework in preparation for our arrival back in Damascus, and at about 6pm Everitte and Emlyn arrived to join us, having opted to remain in Damascus for the day and sleep off their hangovers from their Thursday night out.
We sat and chatted for a bit and then headed to a
rather fancy restaurant, overlooking some of the norias, which are lit up at night. We sat in the restaurant for over three hours, eating a feast of mezze, kebabs and sheesh taouk, and admiring the view of the river at night, before heading back to the hotel where, in a fit of money saving, we had decided to sleep on the roof, after making sure we had a stash of spare bedding, as although it’s warmer than the UK November in Syria is not really outdoor weather after dark.
By the time we had arranged to hire a car and driver for 6 hours, to take us to Masyaf and Krak des Chevaliers, for the bargain price of £7.50 each, and used the internet, it was almost midnight, and we repaired to bed, where I slept surprisingly well under my two extremely heavy duvets, except for being woken up before dawn by the call to prayer, which went on for longer than I would have believed, and again after dawn by the sun hitting my face.
We had breakfast in the hotel, then met our driver Jihad, and set off at about 9.30 on the picturesque drive to
Masyaf, one of the castles which was controlled by the Ismaili Shi’a sect known as the Assassins, whose main base was in Alamut, in Iran. As I studied them in Islamic History and wrote several essays on the Assassins in Iran and Syria it was pretty exciting to see one of their fortresses, and the town surrounding it, which is apparently still predominantly Ismaili today, although the castel itself was nothing particularly special.
The drive from Masyaf to Quala’at al-Hosn through the mountains was breathtaking, and our driver turned out to be lovely, and chatted to us in Arabic most of the way, even stopping at a little roadside stall when we mentioned we were hungry, where an old lady and her entire family including multiple children and grandchildren, and what looked like a great grandmother, worked in a little stone hut cooking handmade bread in a clay oven, and topping it with fresh tomato, herbs and zatar, while a donkey watched from the nearby farmhouse. We each had two of the delicious, freshly cooked pizza breads, standing under the shelter of some vines as it had started to pour with rain. By the time we got to Krak
the skies had opened, and we found ourselves exploring the castle in torrential rain, unable to see the views because they were obscured by a thick mist. Strangely it was quite nice exploring the castle in the mist and rain, all the mysterious dark passages which one can usually explore with a torch were flooded, and water was running down the walls. It gave a real sense of what life in a fortress would have been like, given that they were built for practicality not comfort! The castle was not one of the more picturesque places we’ve been, and for sheer beauty I much preferred Quala’at Salah al-Din, however Krak was awe-inspiring because of the sheer scale of it. The huge fortifications give a real sense of what it must have been like for the Crusaders, trapped in their forts surrounded by enemies on all sides, and how threatened they must have felt to build such a seemingly impenetrable fortress.
The boys paid for an hour tour with a guide, while Becka and I opted just to wander the castle and soak up the atmosphere (and the cold water). We had two hours to spend in the castle before
we had to meet Jihad, and while in the last half hour while the boys headed off to explore the darker parts of the castle Becka and I headed right to the top, to the towers, and were blessed with the most spectacular views when the sun suddenly appeared, leaving half the sky stormy and brooding, and the other half beautifully sunny, and two huge rainbows spanning the mountains.
On the way back we all fell asleep in the car, more tired than we’d thought by our night in the open air and our bedraggled clothes and wet feet. Sadly when I woke up to the driver informing us we had reached the bus station in Homs, where he dropped us to get a quicker bus back to Damascus, I was in a terrible mood, grumpy and cold and in need of some tea or coffee, so everybody had to put up with me stomping about demanding to have some caffeine, like a far less charismatic mordern day Withnail, and generally being moody and unreasonable. However in our return to Damascus Becka and I curled up in the flat with tea and biscuits and Lord of the Rings and
life was good again!
Yesterday was my birthday, and I had an amazing day filled with cake and presents and parties, which was a very welcome surprise, as I had expected it to be a quiet affair.
On Sunday Becka and I went shopping for jewellery, as I still owed her a main present from her birthday to go with her mosque alarm clock, and she suggested we each buy each other a necklace, as we both wanted to buy a nice piece of jewellery, but felt bad spending the money on ourselves. We spent an enjoyable afternoon looking in all the touristy shops for nice necklaces, eventually finding one each that we loved, of decent quality and of not too insane price, and spent an hour in each of the two shops, wearing down the resistance of the shop owners with our insistent pleading until they gave us the pieces we had chosen for the price we wanted! Consequently when I woke up yesterday morning Becka gave me a beautiful card and the necklace she had bought me which is absolutely gorgeous, made of delicate silver leaves and flowers, with red beads.
I had planned to
have a lie-in and go in late to university, but one of the girls had suggested we all bring nice food to class and have a party, as it was not only my birthday but also the 21st birthday of also another girl in our class, Sophia, from SOAS, so I felt I had better show up! I hadn’t expected anything to really come of it, but when when we got to university everybody had remembered and made a real effort, so in the second hour our teacher Hamdu went and bought tea for everyone and we laid out the huge amount of food, consisting of a beautiful fresh fruit tart and 6 different types of cake! It was really lovely, everybody sang happy birthday and we lit the ‘candles’ which were essentially two fireworks stuck in two of the cakes, and then played a team game where we had to guess words of Arabic vocabulary by their description in Arabic, which sounds like a nightmare, but was actually pretty fun in a geeky Arabic student way!
In the evening I went to an Indian restaurant in the new town, near the Four Seasons, and had an amazing feast
of curry and rice and naan with Becka, Emlyn, Everitte, Ali, Tamsin and Sam, and Abdu, their Syrian flatmate. We spent about three hours in the restaurant chatting and eating and drinking chai, and everybody gave me presents, which I really was not expecting, especially such beautiful thoughtful ones. I felt very, very lucky to have met such a nice group of friends who all made such an effort for my birthday, even more so when we finished all the food and suddenly our waiter appeared with a huge chocolate orange cake with ‘Happy Birthday India’ written on it in Arabic, which Sam and Abdu had brought all the way from Bab Touma!
We didn’t leave the restaurant until about 11.30 in the end, when we took a couple of taxis back to the old city, and made our way to a new bar which has opened up on Straight Street, just next to the alley which leads to our house. We met a few more friends from university there and sat and chatted over glasses of rather nice Lebanese red wine, and at about 1am to my surprise and delight Shakespeare and Amir and Hassan and Mitch (this
crazy musician from Nashville) showed up and joined the party. I was yawning non-stop but very happy indeed by the time I finally got to bed at about 3am, and although I didn’t make it into university today to my surprise my 22nd turned out to be a wonderful and very memorable birthday, involving three parties and about 10 cakes, not to mention lots of lovely messages from home and beautiful presents... although I did miss my family, as it’s only the second birthday I’ve ever spent away from home!
There are more photos below